John Courtney Murray and the American Proposition

In response to Crevecoeur’s classic question, “What, then, is the American, this new man?” John Courtney Murray offered a classic answer: the American is the bearer of a proposition. At the beginning of We Hold These Truths—whose silver anniversary of publication we mark this year—Murray noted that, “It is classic American doctrine, immortally asserted by Abraham Lincoln, that the new nation which our Fathers brought forth on this continent was dedicated to a ‘proposition.’ ” This American Proposition, Murray continued, “is at once both doctrinal and practical, a theorem and a problem. It is an affirmation and also an intention. It presents itself as a coherent structure of thought that lays claim to intellectual assent; it also presents itself as an organized political project that aims at historical success. Our Fathers asserted it and most ably argued it; they also undertook to ‘work it out,’ and they signally succeeded.”

There was nothing in the Founders’ and Framers’ success that carried any guarantee for the present; America, Murray understood with Lincoln, is in principle never finished. The American Proposition is tested anew in each generation of Americans; in that sense, all Americans, whatever be the historical accident of their date of birth, are Founders; all are Framers.

The American Proposition, in Murray’s mind, was not to be confused with political mechanics. Against those who would see the Declaration of Independence, and particularly the Constitution, as utilitarian exercises in the management of interests, Murray saw the Founders and Framers as engaged with matters of truth and value. “One idea, rooted in American tradition, has seemed to me to be central,” Murray wrote.

Every proposition, if it is to be argued, supposes an epistemology of some sort. The epistemology of the American Proposition was, I think, made clear by the Declaration of Independence in the famous phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” Today, when the serene, and often naive, certainties of the eighteenth century have crumbled, the self-evidence of the truths may legitimately be questioned. What ought not to be questioned, however, is that the American Proposition rests on the forthright assertion of a realist epistemology. The sense of the famous phrase is simply this: “There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay them down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth.”

The aim of the American Proposition was nothing less than the building of a true City, tranquillitas ordinis, measured and led by the assertion that a politics of virtue was indeed possible, even for fallen man in that most temptation-filled of enterprises, the exercise of power. However it had been traduced by pragmatists and utilitarians, degraded by the ambitious, misunderstood by secularized elites, or reduced to offensive slogans by crude popularizers, the American Proposition, Murray insisted, was founded on a notion of truth that had to be reclaimed by each successive generation of Founders and Framers.

Therein lay the contemporary problematic: the self-evidence of those truths was no longer self-evident. This was not the eighteenth century, when the self-evidence of certain propositions could be confidently asserted. In fact, the very notion of a publicly-knowable truth, one that was in principle available to all men and could thus form the basis of a constitutional commonwealth, was under systematic assault. “What is at stake,” Murray wrote (no less truly of his time than ours),

is America’s understanding of itself. Self-understanding is the necessary condition of a sense of self-identity and self-confidence, whether in the case of an individual or in the case of a people. If the American people can no longer base this sense on naive assumptions of self-evidence, it is imperative that they find other more reasoned grounds for their essential affirmation that they are uniquely a people, a free society. Otherwise the peril is great. The complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity. And it would not be well for the American giant to go lumbering about the world today, lost and mad.

Particularly under the conditions of the modern age, when American self-understanding was not only a matter effecting our own lives, but was a condition with profound effects on the unfolding of the human story, the truths to be asserted within the American Proposition needed reclamation and restatement.

It is crucial to note that, in speaking of American self-understanding, Murray was not immediately concerned with the technicalities of legislative solutions to particular problems of public policy; the issue was much more basic. The argument that needed to be conducted was over American society’s “calendar of values” (to use Charles Frankel’s happy phrase), what Murray termed the country’s “constitutional consensus, whereby the people acquires its identity as a people and the society is endowed with its vital form, its entelechy, its sense of purpose as a collectivity organized for action in history.” The consensus was not, in the usual manner of “political” thinking, a matter of argument over issues; the consensus was the very condition for the possibility of argument. Lacking consensus, there was no argument, only the discord, the cacophony, of barbarians. Agreement on society’s elementary affirmations, its fundamental calendar of values, was the precondition to that civil discourse which marked a genuine polis, a true City, and was, in Murray’s view, the City’s most distinctive characteristic.

Why do we hold to “these truths”? Initially, Murray wrote, “because they are a patrimony. They are a heritage from history, through whose dark and bloody pages there runs like a silver thread the tradition of civility. This is the first reason why the consensus continually calls for public argument. The consensus is an intellectual heritage; it may be lost to mind or deformed in the mind…. High argument alone will keep it alive, in the vital state of being ‘held.’ ”

But there was more here than a sense of patriotic heritage, which could be susceptible to sentimentality: “We hold these truths because they are true. They have been found in the structure of reality by that dialectic of observation and reflection which is called philosophy.” But even here, the consensus could never be taken for granted: “… as the achievement of reason and experience the consensus again presents itself for argument. Its vitality depends on a constant scrutiny of political experience… Only at the price of this continued contact with experience will a constitutional tradition continue to be ‘held,’ as real knowledge and not simply as a structure of prejudice.”

This never-ending, always-expanding process of public argument was a particular problem of the American experiment, Murray argued, because of the unique, natively pluralist character of our society, which, no less a fact of our own time than the time of the Founders and Framers, continued to call forth the public argument over society’s calendar of values. The old antagonisms, Christians against Jews, Protestants against Catholics, contributed to the contemporary debate, but, in Murray’s judgment, were overshadowed in importance by the emergence of new contestants—those secularists who would question the very idea of a principled experiment, if the principles to be averted to had any connection with religious conviction.

However one weighed the values or demerits of various contestants, though, one thing seemed clear to John Courtney Murray: the time for reclamation of the American Proposition was pressingly at hand. For “the fact is that among us civility—or civic unity or civic amity, as you will—is a thing of the surface. It is quite easy to break through it. And when you do, you catch a glimpse of the factual reality of the pluralist society… [which is] honestly viewed under abdication of all false gentility,… a pattern of interacting conspiracies.” Murray wanted to rid the word “conspiracy” of its “invidious connotations. It is devoid of these in its original Latin sense… Literally it means unison, concord, unanimity in opinion and feeling, a ‘breathing together.’ ” In this sense, Murray believed, “the trouble is that there are a number of conspiracies within American society.” So that perhaps “our problem today is somehow to make the… great conspiracies among us conspire into one conspiracy that will be American society—civil, just, free, peaceful, one.” Murray’s expectations were “modest and minimal. It seems to be a lesson of history that men are usually governed with little wisdom…. We cannot hope to make American society the perfect conspiracy based on a unanimous consensus. But we could at least do two things. We could limit the warfare, and we could enlarge the dialogue. We could lay down our arms (at least the more barbarous kind of arms!), and we could take up argument.” Then, “amid the pluralism a unity would be discernible—the unity of an orderly conversation. The pattern would not be that of ignorant armies clashing at night but of informed men locked together in argument in the full light of a new dialectical day. Thus we might present to a ‘candid world’ the spectacle of a civil society.”

The reconstruction of an “order of elementary affirmations” that would create the ground for reasoned public argument, and thus avoid the barbaric dilemma of what Alasdair Maclntyre calls, reversing Clausewitz, “civil war by other means,” required us to understand “the essential contents of the American consensus, whereby we are made ‘e pluribus unum,’ one society subsisting amid multiple pluralisms.” Murray saw one claim within the American Proposition as absolutely fundamental.

This central claim was that the American experiment was “a nation under God,” which meant: under judgment, not merely as individuals, but as a community. The experiment itself was under transcendent judgment, and was answerable to transcendent norms. “The first truth to which the American Proposition makes appeal,” Murray wrote,

is stated in that landmark of Western political theory, the Declaration of Independence. It is a truth that lies beyond politics; it imparts to politics a fundamental human meaning. I mean the sovereignty of God over nations as well as over individual men. This is the principle that radically distinguishes the conservative Christian tradition of America from the Jacobin laicist tradition of Continental Europe. The Jacobin tradition proclaimed the autonomous reason of man to be the first and the sole principle of political organization. In contrast, the first principle of the American political faith is that the political community, as a form of free and ordered human life, looks to the sovereignty of God as to the first principle of its organization.

“The affirmation in Lincoln’s famous phrase, ‘this nation under God,’ sets the American proposition in fundamental continuity with the central political tradition of the West,” Murray continued. In this sense, the American Revolution was “less a revolution than a conservation. It conserved, by giving newly vital form to, the liberal tradition of politics, whose ruin in Continental Europe was about to be consummated by the first great essay in totalitarianism.”

Within this overarching rubric of an experiment under judgment, which had protected American society (thus far) from the totalitarian temptation, there grew a consensus with four particular features.

First, the “consensus was political, that is, it embraced a whole constellation of principles bearing upon the origin and nature of society, the function of the state as the legal order of society, and the scope and limitations of government. ‘Free government’—perhaps this typically American shorthand phrase sums up the consensus. ‘A free people under a limited government puts the matter more exactly. It is a phrase that would have satisfied the first Whig, St. Thomas Aquinas.” The first building-block of the American consensus, then, was a basic distinction, whose roots Murray saw in medieval Catholic thought, between society and the state. Society, man’s natural habitat, exists prior to the state. The state is at the service of society, not vice-versa. This implied a limited function for the state, and meant that government was “not simply the power to coerce, though this power was taken as integral to government.” Rather, “Government, properly speaking, was the right to command. It was authority. And its authority derived from law. By the same token its authority was limited by law.”

But the American experiment had added its own distinctive development to this ancient tradition: the written constitution.

Through the American techniques of the constitutional convention and of popular ratification, the American Constitution is explicitly the act of the people. It embodies their consensus as to the purposes of government, its structure, the extent of its powers and the limitations on them, etc. By the Constitution the people define the areas where authority is legitimate and the areas where liberty is lawful. The Constitution is therefore at once a charter of freedom and a plan for political order.

The second building-block of the American experiment and its foundational consensus was the principle of the consent of the governed. Murray found medieval roots for this principle, too, as well he might given his panoramic knowledge of Aquinas’s synthesis, which included a primitive (but nonetheless real) notion of the necessity of consent for just governance. “The American consensus,” Murray wrote, “reaffirmed this principle, at the same time that it carried the principle to newly logical lengths. Americans agreed that they would consent to none other than their own legislation, as framed by their representatives, who would be responsible to them.” But the American experiment added a new dimension to the principle, for “although the principle of consent was wed to the equally ancient principle of popular participation in rule,” still “this latter principle was given an amplitude of meaning never before known in history, [and] the result was a new synthesis, whose formula is the phrase of Lincoln; ‘government by the people.’ ”

The result was that Americans had “agreed to make government constitutional and therefore limited in a new sense, because it is representative, republican, responsible government. It is limited not only by law but by the will of the people it represents. Not only do the people adopt the Constitution; through the techniques of representation, free elections, and frequent rotation of administrations they also have a share in the enactment of all subsequent statutory legislation… the people are governed because they consent to be governed; and they consent to be governed because in a true sense they govern themselves.”

This was, to be sure, an act of faith: in Murray’s terms, “a great act of faith in the capacity of the people to govern themselves.” It was not an act of faith in everyman’s technical expertise on matters of public policy; it was not an act of faith that the consensus that sustained popular governance would (or should) ever go far beyond first principles; it was surely not an act of faith in the perfectability of human beings. But it was an act of faith that, as Murray put it, “accepted the premise of medieval society, that there is a sense of justice inherent in the people, in virtue of which they are empowered, as the medieval phrase had it, to ‘judge, direct, and correct’ the processes of government.”

This medieval notion of a sense of justice “inherent in the people” is another expression of that Thomistic insistence that society is man’s natural habitat. Against the grosser claims of individualism—and against the classic interpretation of the American experiment as essentially Lockean, now often-repeated (from different intellectual presuppositions, of course) by liberation theologians critical of the very premises of the experiment—Murray understood the American proposition to be about an organic community, not about a band of temporarily-conjoined monads. This sense of organic community was the base on which early American freedoms, such as the institutions of free speech and a free press, grew. “In the American concept of them,” Murray argued,

these institutions do not rest on the thin theory proper to eighteenth-century individualistic rationalism, that a man has a right to say what he thinks merely because he thinks it. The American agreement was to reject political censorship of opinion as unrightful, because unwise, imprudent, not to say impossible. However, the proper premise of these freedoms lay in the fact that they were social necessities… They were regarded as conditions essential to the conduct of free, representative, and responsible government. People who are called upon to obey have the right first to be heard. People who are to bear burdens and make sacrifices have the right first to pronounce on the purposes which their sacrifices serve. People who are summoned to contribute to the common good have the right first to pass their own judgment on the question, whether the good proposed be truly a good, the people’s good, the common good.

The third element in the foundational consensus undergirding the American experiment also hearkened back to classic and medieval themes in political theory: the “profound conviction that only a virtuous people can be free. It is not an American belief that free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral law.” In this way, Murray argued, “the American experiment reposes on Acton’s postulate, that freedom is the highest phase of civil society. But it also reposes on Acton’s further postulate, that the elevation of a people to this highest phase of social life supposes, as its condition, that they understand the ethical nature of political freedom. They must understand, in Acton’s phrase, that freedom is ‘not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.’ ”

Here, we are as far away as possible from the notion that the American experiment in democracy is simply a matter of the mechanics of political arrangement, a comfortable compromise across the ebb and flow of narrow interests. Here, too, we are far away from the Marxist claim that “bourgeois democracy” is merely an epiphenomenal expression of economic forces. Here, the religious affirmation that all men and all human communities are under judgment meets the particular American affirmation that this democratic experiment is answerable to norms that transcend it. Here, in Murray’s phrase, we come to understand that “in this sense, democracy is more than a political experiment; it is a spiritual and moral enterprise. And its success depends upon the virtue of the people who undertake it. Men who would be politically free must discipline themselves.” The American Proposition would stand or fall, Murray believed, not on the measure of its Gross National Product, impressive and important as that might be, but on the measure of its civic virtue. “… Institutions which would pretend to be free with a human freedom must in their workings be governed from within and made to serve the ends of virtue… The American ideal of freedom as ordered freedom, and therefore an ethical ideal, has traditionally reckoned with these truths, these truisms.” The American experiment was, in short, an experiment in peace understood as tranquillitas ordinis, right-ordered political community.

The fourth constitutive element of the American proposition was the assertion that human rights, properly understood, were the rights of man as man, prior to, and not dependent upon, man’s condition as a citizen. “The philosophy of the Bill of Rights,” Murray wrote,

was also tributary to the tradition of natural law, to the idea that man has certain original responsibilities precisely as man, antecedent to his status as citizen. These responsibilities are creative of rights which inhere in man antecedent to any act of government; therefore they are not granted by government and they cannot be surrendered to government. They are as inalienable as they are inherent. Their proximate source is in nature, and in history insofar as history bears witness to the nature of man; their ultimate source, as the Declaration of Independence states, is in God, the Creator of nature and the Master of history.

But, just as the American Proposition was not fundamentally an address to the mechanics of government, so, too, was the Bill of Rights a matter of virtue, of the common moral apprehension of the people. “…The Bill of Rights was an effective instrument for the delimitation of government authority and social power,” Murray claimed, “not because it was written on paper in 1789 or 1791, but because the rights it proclaims had already been engraved by history on the conscience of a people.” Once again, therefore, Murray saw the originating fountain of the American Proposition, not solely in Lockean individualism (although he would have gratefully acknowledged its importance in shaping the Founders’ and Framers’ political understanding), but in the Christian medieval theory of man and society, and particularly in Thomistic constitutionalism. “The American Bill of Rights is not a piece of eighteenth-century rationalist theory,” Murray argued; “it is far more the product of Christian history. Behind it one can see, not the philosophy of the Enlightenment but the older philosophy that had been the matrix of the common law. The ‘man’ whose rights are guaranteed in the face of law and government is, whether he knows it or not, the Christian man, who had learned to know his own personal dignity in the school of Christian faith.”

Did this four-fold consensus, these elementary affirmations of the American Proposition, still seize the imaginations of Americans? Murray was skeptical; certainly many of the nation’s cultural elites had ceased to subscribe to the notion of foundational truths held in common. But he saw one constituent component of the American political community where “the original American consensus still endures”: where the notion of America as a project of civic virtue still held fast against the portrait of America as a mechanical arrangement of competing claims and interests. That was in the American Catholic community, which had now assumed (if unintentionally, and almost certainly unknowingly) the basic tasks of culture-formation, the forging of that “order of elementary affirmations” on which everything else stood. Some 180 years after John Adams wondered acidly how “Luther ever broke the spell,” it was the allegedly bewitched Catholics whose “moment” it was, in the great task of reclaiming and reconstructing the foundational consensus of the American Proposition. Why had this come about? Because, Murray insisted, “the contents of this consensus—the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law—approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience. Where this kind of language is talked, the Catholic joins the conversation with complete ease. It is his language. The ideas expressed are native to his universe of discourse. Even the accent, being American, suits his tongue.”

Murray, a man of piquant humor, must have savoured the paradox here, as the tables were turned on nativisms old and new: the question was no longer whether Catholicism was “compatible” with the American experiment; the question was whether the experiment would long endure without the kind of moral foundation Catholic social theory could help provide. Yet the paradoxes would be even greater than Murray had imagined, as things worked out. Many in the Catholic intellectual elite, in the nearly two decades since Murray’s death, set themselves the task of delegitimating the American Proposition—although what many of them understood themselves to be doing was undertaking a “prophetic” critique of the American system of political economy and of US foreign policy—with enthusiasm, indeed with passion.

The delegitimators would not win, in the precise sense of the term. But they would help create conditions in American Catholicism in which Murray’s call to American Catholics to take up the task of culture-formation, of reclaiming and restating the “order of elementary affirmations” within the Proposition, could not be heard, much less acted upon, since the doing of it would seem to involve an ignoble acquiescence to the American status quo. The view of the Church’s role in the public order, in the generation immediately following Murray, would shift, dramatically: the task was not culture-formation, in the sense that Murray understood it, but judgment. The tone of the interaction was not to be Murray’s sense of the climate of the true City, which was “cool and dry, with the coolness and dryness that characterized good argument among informed and responsible men.” Some of this would remain. But the general temper would be what Murray once called “hot and humid, like the climate of the animal kingdom.”

John Courtney Murray’s great project should not be understood primarily as an effort to “explain” Catholicism to America. Murray was after considerably bigger intellectual game: to chart the moral foundations of any experiment in democratic pluralism. The Murray Project—the most important exercise in democratic political theory ever undertaken by an American Catholic—thus had implications far beyond the United States. The Murray Project was left incomplete by its originator’s untimely death in 1967, but its importance, far from diminishing, has intensified since then. One of the most depressing facets of contemporary American Catholic intellectual life is the reigning disinterest in Murray’s work in general, and in taking up his great project in particular. Murray was no guru to be slavishly followed. But today’s tendency to dismiss Murray as too optimistic about, too uncritical of, the American experiment says rather more about contemporary notions of “relevance” than it does about Murray’s sense that this was “the Catholic moment” in the definition of the American experiment. American Catholicism may well lose the opportunity now before us. But should that happen, the fault will not lie with John Courtney Murray, but with his successors.

This article is adapted from a book on American Catholic thought on war/peace issues since Vatican II, published by Oxford University Press. The second part of this article, dealing specifically with Murray’s views on morality and foreign policy, will appear in our December issue. 

  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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